Synodal vs traditional – Church at crossroads


The recent Vatican letter to the German Bishops’ Conference highlights the tension between a synodal, inclusive approach to Church governance involving bishops and laity and the traditional structures of clerical authority.

This letter, and the broader debate it represents, is emblematic of a Church at a crossroads.

It’s a Church grappling with the need to maintain unity and doctrinal integrity while also engaging with the diverse realities of the global Catholic community.

The contention centres on the proposal by the German Church to establish a Synodal Council that would effectively share decision-making power between the bishops and the laity.

This proposal challenges the traditional hierarchy, where decision-making power has been predominantly vested in the ordained clergy, particularly the bishops.

Vatican response

The Vatican’s response, citing Canon Law to argue against the proposed power-sharing arrangement, underscores a fundamental ecclesiological tension.

This is how the Church interprets and applies its laws in the face of evolving demands for inclusivity and participation from its members.

The resistance from Rome can be seen as a protective measure for the traditional culture of power through ordination.

With its rich tapestry of implicit and explicit theologies, Catholicism relies on semiotic codes like liturgy, hierarchy, and management to facilitate a global yet locally nuanced faith experience.

These codes, especially the symbolic code of ordained power, are crucial in maintaining the Church’s unity and doctrinal consistency across diverse cultural contexts.

Contemporary concerns

The debate over the German proposal is not merely about ecclesiastical governance but touches on deeper questions of identity, authority, and the nature of the Church itself.

It highlights the challenge of balancing Catholicism’s universal and local dimensions, a tension that is not new but has taken on new urgency in the contemporary context.

The letter to the German bishops and the discussions it has generated reflect broader themes within the Church, such as the struggle to articulate a vision of catholic unity that respects and incorporates diversity.

This struggle is not limited to the relationship between the clergy and laity but extends to theological and pastoral practices, liturgical rites, and ecclesial management.

Therefore, the German push for a synodal model of the church can be seen as part of a wider intra-church dialogue about adapting and evolving in a rapidly changing world while remaining faithful to the core tenets of the faith.

…vs African bishops

There is opposition from certain quarters of the Church, notably some African bishops, in response to the document on same-sex and irregular blessings, Fiducia Supplicans.

The document underscores the diverse ways in which different parts of the global Church interpret and prioritise the challenges they face.

The African bishops’ rejection, framed in terms of an “African exceptionalism” that resists perceived Western moral relativism, contrasts with the German bishops’ attempt to address the demands of their local context through structural reform.

Some clergy in Africa have even gone as far as to accuse the West of new colonialism through LGBTQ activism.

Culture, theology, governance, synodality

This juxtaposition of responses to the Church’s challenges today illuminates the complex interplay between cultural context, theological interpretation, and ecclesial governance.

It raises important questions about how the Church can remain a unified body while respecting and incorporating the rich diversity of its global community.

A synodal Church as envisioned by the German proposal and broader ecclesial discussions, offers a potential pathway through this complex terrain.

By fostering a culture of listening and dialogue, a synodal approach promises to enable the Church to navigate better the tensions between unity and diversity, tradition and innovation.

Synodal Church – a new identity

The response to the German bishops’ proposal demonstrates that the path toward a more synodal Church is fraught with challenges.

The critical question facing the Church today is not whether it will change but how it will change.

The current debates over synodality, ecclesial governance, and the role of the laity are not mere administrative concerns but are fundamentally about the identity and mission of the Church in the 21st century.

As the Church navigates these waters, it must find ways to honour its traditions while also responding to the legitimate aspirations of its members for greater participation and representation.

In conclusion, the curial letter to the German Bishops’ Conference and the subsequent discussions it has generated represent a pivotal moment in the life of the Church.

The letter and ensuing discussions reflect a Church in dialogue with itself, struggling to reconcile its foundational beliefs with the pressing demands of a diverse and changing world.

The outcome of this dialogue will shape the future of the Church’s governance and its ability to witness the Gospel in an increasingly pluralistic and interconnected global community.

  • Dr Joe Grayland is currently a visiting professor at the University of Tübingen (Germany). For nearly 30 years, he has been a priest of the Diocese of Palmerston North in New Zealand.
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